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Bohemian rhapsody in New York City

Illegal Living: 80 Wooster Street and the Evolution of SoHo by Roslyn Bernstein and Shael Shapiro

Speculating on the rise and fall of cities is an endlessly fascinating pastime. And it is not only architects and urban designers who like to dredge the deeper currents to understand what lies beneath the city’s perpetual tumult. Everyone loves the story of the High Line in New York, for example, which has single-handedly re-awakened a slumbering neighbourhood with a ‘park in the sky’ along a defunct elevated railway line. But, in reality, is this re-shaping of the city really so simple?

Just as Rem Koolhaas demonstrated in Delirious New York of 1978, a city can provide an accidental manifesto and here, in Illegal Living, SoHo proves to be an accelerated template for many post-industrial cities where you witness the alchemy of mixing artists and derelict factories and turning them into gentrified backdrops for aspirational living. This study by Roslyn Bernstein and Shael Shapiro ably exposes the momentum generated when gifted individuals, innovators, risk-takers and promoters negotiating city governance (with a splash of branding with the invention of the soubriquet SoHo = South of Houston) are combined as the ingredients of successful grass roots urban renewal. It is a complex matrix of influences and, despite appearances, not a quick fix.

Around the world, post-industrial cities mimic SoHo’s demographic shape-shifting by inverting expectations by going from bust to boom. This rebirth is achieved both with the sometimes fortuitous turning tides of global economics and more specifically by recycling robust 19th-century buildings, coalescing creative communities who wish to inhabit them, and then, crucially, adapting planning mechanisms and urban infrastructures to harness new value.

This regeneration overview runs beneath this highly researched biography of a modest building at 80 Wooster Street. Its various physical iterations and the narratives of its inhabitants illustrate both the persistent preoccupations of city dwellers over the past 200 years (rubbish, taxes, noisy neighbours) and the physical morphology of Western cities. The original building goes from genteel home to grossly overcrowded lodging house, set in an underworld of prostitution on a down-at-heel side street, and it is then reincarnated as a fire-proofed warehouse for the specialist goods trade in a rapidly expanding city bursting with new immigrants.

A magnificent architectural presence bedecked with giant frieze and cornice, medallions in terracotta, Roman brickwork and cast iron columns and storefront, it eventually faces decline as heavy uses evacuate the centre of the metropolis and relocate on the edge.

Then, in 1967, arrives George Maciunas: comic visionary, architect and artist, creator of the Fluxus movement, collector (ranging from his ‘anthologies of animal droppings’ Excreta Fluxorum to his One Year, comprising all the containers for all the items he consumed in 1972), and ringmaster to SoHo’s re-invention.

Here, Maciunas personifies the dynamic combination required to shape change at an urban level in tough conditions with great practical and professional skills, a working knowledge of Codes and Plumbing, and the ability to orchestrate serious fun. As the narrative picks up pace and canters through a list of soon-to-be artists and celebrities (Robert De Niro, Willem Dafoe, Trisha Brown and Philip Glass), and established stars (Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenburg, John Lennon and Yoko Ono), a storyline emerges akin to the casting of Groucho Marx in the Theatre of the Absurd.

Forced to wear disguises to hide from the Attorney General’s inspectors and disgruntled contractors, Maciunas sets up the first of many planned Fluxhouses in the building (complete with bolt-holes and escape hatches), which is designated as non-residential, but that he insists will one day be live-work, as an ‘artistic nucleus’ in the community.

Lacking the ability to raise funds commercially without a Certificate of Occupancy, he draws together like-minded artists and scrapes enough money together to buy the building. Over the course of the next decade, building support and legitimacy for what is essentially illegal loft living, he paves the way for the radical amendment of planning codes, which eventually in the 1980s allowed registered artists to live in SoHo, thus recognising the need for spaces for the marginal in the centre of the city.

Comic visionary, architect and inventor of the Fluxus movement, George Maciunas is credited with the artistic revival of SoHo in New York City during the early 1960s

Comic visionary, architect and inventor of the Fluxus movement, George Maciunas is credited with the artistic revival of SoHo in New York City during the early 1960s

As Jane Jacobs said in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, ‘If a city area has only new buildings, the enterprises that can exist there are automatically limited to those that can support the high costs of new construction… Chain store, chain restaurants, and banks go into new construction… Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings [but] new ideas must use old buildings.’

By generating a new model of urban occupation based on adjusting planning at a policy level and the careful adaption of existing fabric, SoHo is a helpful test-case from which to learn. How a new settlement seeks first rubbish collections, then schools and basic social infrastructure, balancing the logistics of sanitation and defence against disaster, echoes the needs of squatters around the world. Simultaneously, these new homeowners demand controls as to who is allowed to occupy and use the future city. As if defending their stronghold, in effect they help to write an urban constitution with physical constraints and tight social control, which means that only registered artists can live here, and non-artists need not apply.

Despite requesting certificates to prove an artist’s status in order to occupy a space in SoHo and to achieve the artists’ own ambitions for a counter culture, in reality the City could not enforce this requirement. Over time, the residents’ complexion altered as older artists cashed in and a new wealth entered the frame, leaving studios to be remodelled as large living spaces only. Galleries became boutiques and the aim for a cultural district gave way to destination shopping and tourism, and the art world found areas to colonise elsewhere.

The attitudes in SoHo have shifted too. Not surprisingly, the marginal occupants from the 1960s and ’70s have aged and perhaps have acquired the characteristics of suburban plot-dwellers, now complaining about traffic jams, alcohol licences, and despairing at the creation of SoHo as ‘party central’, exhibiting growing intolerance to ‘The New’ despite their radical origins. It is ‘No’ to new ‘non-artist’ residential developments and definitely ‘No’ to a McDonald’s fast food outlet. They bemoan the loss of real artists, but fail to lobby the City to enforce the law for fear perhaps of losing out on the re-sale of their now highly priced lofts. Ultimately they prove, in the same way that developers in Soho, London, have found, that the longer residents stay in one place, the more they tend to want peace and quiet, and as little change as possible. It is with a delicious irony that genuinely mixed-use cities are notoriously hard to police and maintain in harmony once they have become someone’s legal home.

SoHo offers many lessons from its rapid change in fortune. Speculating with my students at London Metropolitan University on the future of London’s Soho and trying to avoid romanticised versions of a bohemian demi-monde, we have found ourselves using SoHo, New York City, as a valuable foil. Both have surprising similarities evolving in well-defined enclaves, from residential to manufacturing. As decline has set in, both have survived the threat of traffic infrastructure crashing through their historic fabric in the 1960s and ’70s (in London’s Soho, the motorway planned with A+P Smithson’s support; in SoHo, NYC, the eight-lane expressway across Broome Street).

Both have achieved heritage status − in SoHo’s case, the preservation of the stunning cast-iron buildings that mix utility, decorum and prefabrication. Over time, ground-up determination to avoid big-block site assemblage and the loss of small plots has defended the area from overdevelopment, and both boast conservative amenity groups intent on negotiating the conundrum of feeling at home in the city while defending un-urban qualities such as peace and quiet at night within a 24-hour city economy.

However, it is at the scale of policy combined with maverick architect-led action that SoHo offers a critical perspective. By demanding that marginal uses of an area be preserved, distinguished areas of the city can be defended and specific (if not ‘original’) characteristics encouraged. By renegotiating planning policy, new urban morphologies evolve that are unexpected and delightful. The cast-iron lofts of SoHo’s Heritage District are precursors to the bold initiative of the community-led, architect-designed High Line in the former Meatpacking District, where design success is underscored by a radical readjustment of zoning law.

The once-condemned elevated railway that cuts a swathe through a part of Manhattan where residential development had previously been restricted was kept and restored, thereby severely limiting any potential redevelopment envisaged for the sites along its route. In exchange for this preservation, the planning department allowed owners to transfer their established development rights to neighbouring plots and this action enabled the area to accrue value and kick-started regeneration. New amenities flourished and the rejuvenated city emerged, as if to emphasise that the importance of gifted architects and quietly radical planning legislation should never be undervalued.

As a coda, it might be the financial crisis of 2007-08 that could auger a new chapter in SoHo’s history. After years of laissez-faire borrowing, The New York Times reported in November 2010 that the banks were now scrutinising the legal agreements relating to the occupancy of lofts in SoHo, and finding the need for a certified artist to be in residence to comply with local laws. They are questioning the very legality of the newest wave of occupants to SoHo who are, of course, now engaged in their own form of illegal living.

Illegal Living: 80 Wooster Street and the Evolution of SoHo

Author: Roslyn Bernstein and Shael Shapiro

Publisher: Jonas Mekas Foundation

Price: £25

Distributor: Idea Books

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